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Trump plays the ousted autocrat struggling to recapture past glory | Donald Trump

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From plastering his name on buildings to hiring his own children, from salivating over military parades to savaging the media, from befriending fellow strongmen to defying the will of the people, Donald Trump has done much to invite comparisons with autocrats.

On Tuesday he continued to play that role to perfection. Only now he was the ousted dictator, drained of power and surrounded by a dwindling band of loyalists in his last redoubt, the opulent Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. As a rule, the grander the palace, the weaker the man.

To raucous cheers and shrill whistles, the 45th president of the United States announced his intention to become the 47th “in order to make America great and glorious again”. Never before has someone launched a run for the White House in the shadow of so many scandals and criminal investigations. And never before – perhaps! – has Trump been so vulnerable within the Republican party.

If he hoped that this hour-long speech would silence the doubters and regain the patronage of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, he will surely be disappointed. The Trump who took the stage seemed an ageing champ returning to centre court only to find he’s holding a wooden racket.

In an attempt to appear “presidential” – something that America previously spent four years waiting for in vain – he delivered the kind of low energy performance for which he used to mock Jeb Bush (thus Jeb Bush Jr wrote on Twitter: “WOW! What a low energy speech by the Donald. Time for new leaders! #WEAK #SleepyDonnie”).

Here was the spectacle of a man who is over the hill, chasing past glories and raging against the dying of the right. “Just as I promised in 2016, I am your voice,” he told guests, but it did not seem to strike the same chord as six years ago.

David Axelrod, a former strategist for Barack Obama, tweeted: “Weird performance. Either he was advised to tone it down or he’s just depressed about all the pounding he’s taken in the past week for the GOP’s performance.”

Trump’s long-trailed declaration came just a week after many of his endorsed candidates flopped in the midterm elections, following similar rebukes in 2018 and 2020. Millions of people sent a message that they are sick of the lies, the hate and the conspiracy theories. Whatever he was selling in the midterms, people were no longer buying.

Naturally, he did not accept this premise, claiming that he had notched 232 wins and suffered only 21 losses and not been given due credit. “I’m not going to use the term fake news; we’re going to keep it very elegant,” he said. Claiming prematurely that Republicans had just regained a majority in the House of Representatives, he added gleefully: “Nancy Pelosi has been fired!” The crowd of several hundred guests erupted.

Trump also embarked on a meandering speculation that “the citizens of our country haven’t realised the full gravity of the pain our nation is going through, and the total effect of the suffering is just starting to take hold”.

Supporters cheer at Mar-a-Lago.
Supporters cheer at Mar-a-Lago. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

But, come 2024, they may and act accordingly. The speech felt unlikely to persuade Murdoch’s media outlets or Republican donors now openly flirting with Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, who offers a cleaner, crisper form of Trumpism.

Trump steered clear of his “Ron DeSanctimonius” moniker this time but repeated his 2016 claim that America’s malaise calls for an outsider, not a politician (he spoke of “the festering rot of corruption in Washington DC”, prompting crowd chants of “Drain the swamp! Drain the swamp!”). The difference, this time, is that the US knows what four years of Trump in the Oval Office means – two impeachments and an experiment in American carnage.

A primary between Trump, DeSantis and possibly Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo and others threatens to be a Republican Lord of the Flies. Trump would start with the disadvantage of multiple federal, state and congressional investigations hanging over him. Maybe he thinks, probably erroneously, that becoming a presidential candidate will shield him from the justice department.

Mar-a-Lago itself is allegedly a crime scene: it was here, on the plush 20-acre estate, that Trump stored hundreds of classified documents that should have been given to the National Archives (he has claimed that he could declassify them just by thinking about it).

Trump declared Mar-a-Lago his permanent residence in 2019 and has reportedly turned into an unlikely DJ there, with his signature tune being the Village People’s YMCA. As a backdrop to Tuesday’s announcement, it nodded to Trump’s perceived status as a “blue-collar billionaire” – if I can live the American dream, you can too.

He delivered his address surrounded by 33 US national flags and elaborate Corinthian-style columns, beneath a ceiling of 16 crystal chandeliers and elaborate gold leaf decoration. The walls boasted mounted faux candelabra and giant Versailles-style mirrors. Giant TV screens proclaimed in white on blue: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! TEXT TRUMP TO 88022. DONALDJTRUMP.COM.”

There were chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” and shouts of “We love you!” from hundreds of invited guests sitting or standing on the marble floor – some of them Maga diehards with the suits and red hats to prove it, some the Florida nouveau riche with the tans and jewels to prove it. At least four men wore leather jackets emblazoned with “Bikers for Trump”.

Beforehand, Mike Lindell, the My Pillow guy, had prowled the room looking for reporters to berate about his fantastical conspiracy theories about voting machines. Loudspeakers boomed the Trump golden oldies, just as they do at his rallies: Johnny Cash, Elton John, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, the Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, Frank Sinatra (“And now, the end is near/ And so I face the final curtain”).

Then, bizarrely, came a deafening roar of Do You Hear the People Sing? from the musical Les Misérables and the more tried and trusted “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood.

Once Trump had confirmed his candidacy he warmed up a little, railing against Joe Biden for spurious reasons and reeling off some half-baked policies. Still not quite able to let go of 2020, despite the horrors of January 6 and the repudiation of election deniers last week, he declared: “To eliminate cheating, I will immediately demand voter ID, same day voting and only paper ballots.” This crowd loved it.

The former first lady Melania Trump appeared smiling at the former president’s side at the end. But there was no sign of his son and Maga champion Donald Jr or daughter Ivanka, who issued a statement saying she is now staying out of politics. On the night of his great comeback, Trump, like King Lear, had been silently rebuked by his favorite, an absence that suggested: let it go.